Life is not full of infinite do-overs. It is not a kid’s game of baseball in the street that allows a fresh unscored pitch to be thrown after the previous ball hit the telephone wires. Even in sports like swimming and track, the number of restarts is limited before one is simply disqualified.
Maybe that makes Karlyn Pipes special, or lucky, or both.
She holds CSU Bakersfield, national and world records in various swimming events. She was inducted last month into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at 52 years old, just 17 years removed from her time in the water at CSUB.
Yes, Karlyn Pipes was 35 years old when she competed for CSU Bakersfield in the 1997-1998 season and 36 years old when she finished her bachelor’s degree in Communications at CSUB a year later. A 10-year do-over from what she called her “lost years.” Those were the years from age 20 to 31 for Pipes, a rough and challenging period in her young life full of instability and, a crippling battle with addiction.
The Karlyn Pipes that was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Division II national champion and the Karlyn Pipes that is now a professional swim instructor and motivational speaker is far-removed from the Karlyn Pipes that first started college in 1980. But that journey from rock bottom to the top is what has shaped her life story, and was the inspiration for her soon-to-be-published autobiography, titled appropriately “The Do-Over.”
She received a lifetime’s worth of do-overs in one opportunity; to swim at CSU Bakersfield after a tumultuous addiction-driven period in her life, but, in order to properly do the comeback justice, one must understand the depths of the despair that led her down that path in the first place.
Her “lost years” were full of college enrollments and the eventual drop outs. There was a semester at the University of Arkansas in 1980 that included a grade-point-average that barely registered on the scale, and even more addiction-related issues which will be chronicled heavily in the book, due out in August.
Not all was dark during that period. There was some success mixed in during those years after several short-lived comebacks as a competitive swimmer, but as Pipes says now, success wasn’t what made her better, in most cases it made her struggle even more.
“I had this talent and potential as a swimmer and it was the worst thing you could do,” she said. “Because I made a comeback at 25, broke a world record and then the dissent into my addiction from 25 to 31 was like I couldn’t handle success.”
Pipes was and continues to be an interesting and unique story. While she has accomplished plenty since graduating from CSUB 16 years ago, the Hall of Fame nod, numerous world master’s-class swimming records, a successful swimming-training business in Hawai’i, her journey to Bakersfield from her native San Diego was the beginning of a new life, and the first steps in her do-over journey.
“I kept thinking, I’ll go back to college, I’ll get my act together, I’ll start swimming again and take advantage of this potential and then everything would derail because I would start into my addiction again, I never quit,” she said. “At 31 I entered a period of recovery where I was determined to turn my life around.”
That turnaround started at Palomar College in San Diego, although swimming at 34 years old, her accomplishments were still numerous, drawing the attention of then-CSUB head coach Pat Skehan, who offered her the chance to swim at CSUB, who at the time was still competing at the Division II level.
“I went back to school and started swimming and started swimming community college and that’s where Pat noticed me, and she offered a scholarship to me and I thought this is kind of cool but I don’t want to go to Bakersfield,” Pipes said. “I thought I was Division I material, but it all worked out.”
Getting over that uneasiness about coming to Bakersfield would prove to be one of the best decisions Pipes would make in her new life.
Skehan, now the head coach at the University of LaVerne, was immediately impressed with Pipes’ work ethic and dedication to swimming.
“I knew I was taking a chance on her and I knew her backstory but she had made so much progress,” Skehan said. “From the first day I met her you knew she was stepping into a new life and a new world full-on. She absolutely replaced one compulsion [addiction] with another, I have never been with anybody who talked so much about swimming, it was all-consuming every part of her life.”
With originally only one NCAA semester left of eligibility, Pipes enlisted the help of both Coach Skehan and then faculty athletics representative Dr. Richard Graves to petition the NCAA for a waiver, to allow her the entire 1997-1998 season to compete.
“They ended up putting together a ‘negative report’ that showed I was really a screw-up in my 20’s and I had the transcripts to prove it, showing how many times I dropped in and out (of college),” Pipes said. “I went back and contacted my bosses from jobs I had been fired from, I got transcripts from the University of Arkansas where my last semester I had like a .06 GPA.”
The NCAA was sympathetic to Pipes’ case and granted her an additional semester of eligibility so she could compete the entire season where she won three NCAA Division II individual and relay events and helped the Roadrunners’ women’s team to their highest national finish, second place.
“It was like having another coach on the deck but in the water,” Skehan said about having a 35-year-old student-athlete. “Her experiences and stuff helped an up and coming team really turn a corner because she could swim faster than them and that was great but, she had lived through what they were living through in a not very good way, and so she had a different perspective on it.”
“She valued every day of practice and every swim meet and every opportunity where an 18 to 20-year-olds oftentimes let those opportunities slide by just trying to survive the transition into adulthood.”
Pipes continued her education in Bakersfield the following year, although done with eligibility she was determined to leave CSUB with a degree. She continued to compete locally with the Golden Empire Club and qualified in a relay team for the US Nationals which were held in Clovis, Calif., that year.
Her academics were challenging, once again dealing with the baggage that her “lost years” left behind.
“The wreckage of your past catches up with you,” Pipes said. “ My first year at Arkansas I was academically ineligible, it basically took me almost making the Dean’s List every quarter from the time I returned to a university to get my grades up to graduating with a 3.54.”
She also had help along the way, not just from coaches like Pat Skehan who she credits with much of her success, but from professors and advisors at CSUB like Judith Pratt, professor of communications, who was instrumental in convincing her and her then husband Eric to stay in Bakersfield to finish her coursework.
“So I stayed another year and it was awesome,” Pipes said. “We just enjoyed our experience in Bakersfield, it was just something that didn’t look like it was going to be great on paper; coming from San Diego to go to school in Bakersfield but it was just the perfect fit for me from a swimming stand point, from a college and university stand point, from the education that I received and the guidance that I received.”
Pipes had two things going for her leaving CSUB, her ability in the pool and her degree in communications/public relations.
As far as the swimming part went, her body of work now speaks for itself. Pipes is a decorated competitor, recently being named one of the top ten master’s swimmers of all time by Swimming World Magazine and was recognized as the ‘World Master’s Swimmer of the Year’ on five occasions, most recently in 2012. She has also set over 200 FINA world master’s records, 47 of which are still current.
Just run a Google news search of the 52-year old swimmer and you will be inundated with article after article highlighting her record-setting abilities and video upon video of one record-setting performance after another.
Speaking of records, she still holds four places in the CSUB all-time record books as well, all set in 1998. Even with the transition into the Division I ranks and a new class of competitive swimmers being recruited, Pipes’ CSUB all-time 400 IM record of 4:24.18 is still two-seconds faster than any other on that top-five list. She also holds the top spot in the 200 backstroke as well with a time of 2:00.54, nearly one second faster than second place. Pipes also still holds the fourth-fastest 200 IM time of 2:05.24 and the fifth-fastest 200 backstroke time of 57.05, again all set in 1998.
The second thing Pipes had working in her favor was her degree from CSUB, which she put to good use in 2003 when she moved to Kona, Hawai’i and opened the swim instruction company Aquatic Edge. Pipes’ company hosts over 50 swimming clinics throughout the globe every year with the Roadrunner alumnus making frequent trips to Australia, mainland United States, Italy, France and anywhere she can host a freestyle swimming or multi-stroke clinic for athletes, teams and competitors. She also regularly hosts open water swim camps and trains triathletes in the open water portion of their grueling event.
“So much of what I learned in my degree like web page design, press releases, special event planning, and all those things were directly related to the education I received at Bakersfield,” she said.
Her latest venture will be motivating others by sharing her story, her journey and the details of her own do-over.
“I am hoping to inspire other people that do-overs don’t need to be extreme-life makeovers, but that they can be a minute to minute, day to day change in how you think about something, a change in attitude, change in perception, or even your next swimming stroke,” Pipes said. “Every morning the sun comes up, we have a chance to do something over.”
Many of the details surrounding her struggles and her journey to the International Swimming Hall of Fame will be available when ‘The Do-Over’ is released in August. Just opening up her story to others has been a life-changing experience for the athlete-turned-author.
“With the book, I am sharing a very raw and very honest story with the readers, I am allowing myself to be vulnerable and by doing so that allows other people be the same with me,” Pipes said. “That is something that people share with you like if they’ve been touched by addiction in their family, and so I am kind of in a position to be a steward to that and be inspiring in the way of there is a way out of recovery from wherever you are at.”
The Karlyn Pipes of today is now at a crossroads as well, having recently been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, her journey in the water has shifted once again. She admits with all the championships and world records to her credit, she has nothing left to prove as a competitor, but plenty still to accomplish.
“It’s about giving back, it’s about recognizing the people who have helped you along the way and then maybe being in a position where you can do the same, where you can inspire and create hope,” she said.
Those that helped her along the way like coach Pat Skehan at CSUB and other coaches and family were present at her induction ceremony last month, a gesture not lost on Pipes who has a laundry list of people that believed in her ability and were a part of her do-over.
“It’s not me. I might stand up on the blocks and break records but when I stand up on the blocks and do something like that, it’s like every single person who believed in me, before I believed in myself, broke that record too, and they are a part of my hall of fame induction, they’re in there too,” Pipes said. “It was a collective effort, nobody gets to the top alone and I just really appreciate the people who believed in me along the way.”
That belief for Pipes started with an opportunity at CSUB, a chance at redemption in 1997 when she first competed for the Roadrunners after her “lost years.” The first steps at CSUB were the beginning of a beautiful journey and a comeback story not often duplicated.
She recalls the first moment she walked out on the deck for the Roadrunners.
“I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” she said, thinking back to the fall of 1997. “When I walked out onto that pool deck and I saw that logo, that ball that said ‘NCAA’, and I was like ‘wow, this is so cool’. I knew I was granted this second chance to go do it right. Being a part of CSUB and the team and we won relays and I won three events but what superseded that was our second place (NCAA) finish.”
Skehan says being a turning point for student-athletes is part of the job of coaching and the timing in Pipes’ situation was critical.
“You run into thousands of kids and you are a turning point for a lot of kids good or bad, it was just the timing for the moment for all those pieces to come together,” Skehan said. “I don’t think I am any better than any college coach in the world who does this, it was just the timing; she helped us and we helped her and we were the right pieces at the right time.”
Karlyn Pipes didn’t receive countless do-overs, she just had one chance at starting all over again that paid off with a comeback that is fitting material for an autobiography that Pipes says contains the story of a woman getting her life, her brain, her health, and her sport back.
That sport, more specifically swimming, might have saved Karlyn Pipes life, something that she will never forget as she continues swimming to this day as an instructor to Olympians, triathletes, and ordinary recreational swimmers; the water is simply her “meditative” place.
“I don’t punch a clock, but anytime I go to the pool and swim I have an opportunity to reach out and extend a hand, or share a part of my story with somebody and hopefully by me sharing that they are able to take a look at some part of their life that might need some help or some recovery and move on.” Pipes said, admitting she feels a little pressure now leading as an example for others.
The importance of her opportunity at CSUB, the guidance provided by coaches and staff and the soothing effects of the sport of swimming remain with the former Roadrunner who is now an author, motivational speaker and proud member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.